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The 10 Dumbest Risks People Take With Their Smartphones

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If you think of your smartphone as just a phone, rather than a very powerful mini-computer that happens to make phone calls, you may be cruising for a world of pain.

That’s because the amount of sensitive data many of us store on our phones is truly staggering. A smartphone provides us direct access to our savings and checking accounts. It may store our passwords to Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, even our email accounts. The phone numbers and email addresses of all our friends and colleagues are easy to find in our contacts directory.

What chaos could ensue if a thief happens to get his hands on all that data? And it probably isn’t especially hard to steal. Any security system is only as good as its weakest link, and humans are the weakest link of all. Despite our best intentions, how many of us have left our phones — or come dangerously close to leaving them — in the backseat of a taxi, sitting on top of the toilet paper dispenser at our favorite restaurant, in the seatpocket of an airliner, on the bar of a tavern, by the hotel pool, or on a conference table after a meeting?

Equally unpleasant, your phone could be hacked or compromised by a virus while you are doing online banking — or browsing the Internet at your favorite Starbucks, at the airport, in a hotel lobby, or sitting at a table waiting for your date to arrive.

If you’ve taken the right steps to protect yourself, losing your phone will be just an annoyance. But if you’ve failed to safeguard your phone with a password, backing up all your data and installing a program that can wipe the phone’s data remotely, you are setting yourself up for a seriously traumatic event. (If you are worried that you’ve fallen victim, and that someone could be using your personal information to open credit cards or take out other types of loans, use our free Credit Report Card to monitor your credit and accounts month to month.)

To help you prepare your defenses, here are the 10 dumbest things that people do (or fail to do) with their smartphones.

1. No password protection.

If you could “lock” your wallet, wouldn’t you? Well, why don’t more folks lock their iPhone or Android phone? While it is nowhere CLOSE to being foolproof, a phone password works like the theory of the burglar and the dog: If you take that extra step to protect yourself, most bad guys will simply move on to the next (easier) target. It’s a lot easier for a thief to steal a smartphone with no password than it is to work on cracking your phone.

2. Shop online with an Internet browser instead of a shopping app.

If you have the choice between shopping at Amazon.com using your phone’s browser versus Amazon’s app, use the app! Ditto for eBay, Overstock, and any big retailer that gives you the option of using their app. Unlike browsers, dedicated shopping apps are designed to ward off phishing and other kinds of scams. (Before you download it, just make sure it’s really their official app!)

3. Remain logged into banking, PayPal, eBay, and other sensitive apps.

Would you keep your Macy’s credit card, Wells Fargo debit card or AmEx on top of your desk at work? How about the front seat of your car? I think not. Then why would you keep your phone permanently logged into those same accounts? When you finish banking or shopping, make sure to log out. And NEVER click the box asking the app to save your user ID or password. Yes, it’s a pain in the butt to log in every time. We all tend to value convenience over security. But if a thief gets a hold of a phone that is already logged into sensitive accounts — especially if that phone has no password — it could spell financial disaster. And remember, turning off your devices every now and then can be a good idea.

4. Automatically connect to any available WiFi connections.

Whether you are using your laptop, tablet or smartphone, switch off the feature that connects to nearby WiFi networks automatically. Otherwise, hackers with the right software can easily hack your phone, as security experts have warned us for more than a decade.

5. Leave Bluetooth connections open.

Bluejacking, Bluesnarfing, Bluebugging. These are all words that describe a hacker exploiting the open Bluetooth connection on your phone. While this type of hack requires the intruder to be relatively close to you (less than 30 feet away), the intrusion can occur undetected in a busy airport, hotel lobby, restaurant, or at a conference.

6. Fail to properly purge data from old smartphones.

This is a very common mistake. Many people fail to remove sensitive, personal data from their smartphone before taking it out of service, donating it or selling it. Short of physically shredding your device (which is the only surefire way to delete all your data in an irretrievable manner). Deleting data before getting rid of your phone is simple common sense.

7. Download “free” apps that aren’t actually free.

Some Apps that call themselves “free” are actually little more than thinly-disguised data thieves. Downloading one gives the app complete access to your phone, which a fraudster can use to steal your credit card and bank account info. Such apps also can turn your phone into a launch pad from which scammers can attack other peoples’ phones with SMS texts and Smishing scams. Be smart and discreet about what you download. Read reviews first, and make sure the apps you download come from reputable sources.

8. Storing sensitive data on phones.

Many people store passwords, pins, Social Security numbers, credit card or bank account information on smartphones. It may be a document created expressly for this purpose, or it could be an email they themselves from their computers. On a phone, emails and downloaded documents are especially easy for thieves to find and steal, especially if the phone is not password protected. Some people even label the document or email “passwords,” making them especially easy prey for hackers and scammers. Make sure to delete all documents and emails containing sensitive information from your phone.

Any easy way to make sure your bank accounts or other sensitive data haven’t been hacked is to monitor your credit. Again, you can use the free Credit Report Card to check your credit every month and catch any major changes to your score that may be due to identity theft.

9. Failing to clear browser history.

Not clearing the browser history on your phone can be just as dangerous as staying logged into the website of your bank or your favorite store (see mistake #3). By retracing your steps, a phone thief can use your history to hijack your accounts, steal your money and wreck havoc.

10. No remote wiping software.

Various apps and services enable you to locate your phone, and also wipe its data clean, if it’s lost or stolen. Tech-savvy hackers may be able to disengage these applications, but it’s just one more layer of protection you can use to reduce your risks if you ever lose your phone.

At the end of the day, it doesn’t matter how many anti-identity theft laws we passed, or how vigorously those laws are enforced. The ultimate guardian of the consumer is the consumer herself. Your identity is your asset. It is up to you to vigorously defend and protect it. You can take major steps toward protecting yourself by avoiding these stupid smartphone tricks.

Image: Ingram Publishing

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  • Shirley Ann FIsk

    Bronx, NY

    I wish I’d read your article about 3 years ago before I got my first “smart” phone (Blackberry) from AT&T. My ID theft problems are ridiculous and I don’t know how to solve them but I’m trying to keep my laptop safe–of course, it’s not working.

    • Adam Levin


      If you are having identity theft issues, you should check with your insurance agent, bank, credit union, or HR Director to see if they offer programs where professionals help you through this. In many cases, the assistance is free – as a perk of your relationship with a particular institution. In other situations, because of your affiliation with an institution, the services are discounted but still pretty reasonable. It’s worth the call. You may well be pleasantly surprised to learn that your access to this type of expert help is free.

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  • http://www.identity-theft-scout.com/ John Cosstick

    Hi Adam, Thanks for this article and Shirley’s post and your response. This is a very good idea about banks, credit unions and others providing consumer financial access offering linked or freed services to help victims or potential victims to protect their identities.

    Thank you.


    John Cosstick

  • John Oakes

    The vulnerabilities mentioned in this article are the reason why I DON’T store my sensitive information on a smartphone. It’s very important for me to have instant access to a great deal of business and personal information … but that information is not on my phone. A thief who steals my phone will get to my address book (if he can hack the phone password) but aside from phone numbers and addresses, there’s not much there. In addition to my not-so-smart phone, I carry an iPod Touch. This device literally contains the keys to my kingdom. However, the iPod is not always ON, connected to a network, and vulnerable to exploitation. It’s a hassle sometimes to carry and keep track of two devices but it’s worth the hassle to reduce the risk of identity theft or loss of sensitive business information.

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  • ClevelandCleveland

    This brings back memories of when I saw the first blackberry commercial on television where the boss and new hire are walking outside of the office building after work. The boss gives a new Blackberry to the new employee and states: “Now you can take your office with you anywhere you go.” I turned to my wife and said: “this is the end of the world as we once knew it. It will be all downhill from this moment on.”

    Sad to say, but I could not have been more prophetic.

  • voice_reason

    How about simply don’t use for phone for banking or serious financial transactions

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  • grandmah

    This information was very helpful.

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  • http://www.credit.com/ Credit.com Credit Experts

    There is no way to completely protect yourself. However, if you password-protect your phone and use good, strong passwords for your accounts, you are doing what you can. Using Internet phone services does not necessarily suggest malicious intentions. See: How an Identity Thief Can Access Your Smartphone

  • onstrike112

    I’d have to disagree with using a browser instead of a shopping app. I find that having one shopping app for each online store to be both a waste of memory and a data collection tool. You probably shop from your computer using a web browser. How is using your smartphone or tablet browser any different? It’s not.

  • Senoir

    Hey Jo,I’m a retired specialist in the USArmy, meaning I do have some credibility and respect. I wanted to put my opinion towards you. I mean no disrespect nor dishonor towards you or your friend,but,in today’s world,why not do as the old timers,including myself, did an do. Ask him face to face. Not over any social media BS, but man to man.you don’t have to be disrespectful, but simply ask him what his problem is. Regardless of what some have been taught, confrontation an violence do solve problems. I’m not saying flatline this guy, just confront him. If he disrespects you,well,that’s when the violence comes in. If nothing else, shitcan the guy, you sound as though you have several friends that think like you,so,in a last resort, shitcan his ass. Thank you for hearing my opinion. Godspeed. HOOAH.

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